The Amiga 4000 Tower -- First Impressions: What's Not So Good

Things that could have been done better

By Michael Webb, Editor-in-Chief, MikeWebb@CompuServe.COM

In life, it is often wise not to expect things to come up completely roses. In the computer world, I have found, this is especially true. The A4000T was no exception. Much of what I have to say may seem reminiscent of Steve Duff's observations of unprofessionalism within the Amiga community in reference to his new A4000T, as published in AM on various occasions over the last year. There is definitely room for improvement.

For starters, I'd like to cover Software Hut's errors, and there were a few.

First, I was hoping the Ariadne board would be preinstalled. I'm not going to complain too much about this, because I probably didn't make it entirely clear that I wanted that done (but hoped it would be installed along with the CyberStorm and high-density floppy drive), and also because it wasn't such a big deal to do it myself. I probably would have had the Amiga apart before long anyway (after all, that's part of owning one!), and opening it proceeded to reveal some other problems as well. But before that happened, I noticed that there was only one floppy drive. I specifically asked for a high-density drive to be added, not used to replace the existing double-density drive. The latter, however, was what was done. And it led to some other problems later on. But before I get to that, I should note that the Amiga did contain 16 MB of fast RAM, but rather than there being four 4-MB SIMM's in the motherboard sockets (as I had specifically asked), there was a 16-MB SIMM on the CyberStorm. The invoice did not reveal this change of course, and there was no price change to reflect the lack of the double-density drive, or the one large SIMM instead of four smaller ones.

I promptly called Software Hut, and they agreed to send "a" ("the?") double-density drive, and exchange four 4-MB SIMM's for the 16-MB one. Being in a hurry, we asked for overnight shipping, which we had to pay for. The shipment barely arrived within that time frame, too, but that wasn't their fault. There was some justification for the installation of the 16-MB SIMM, but I didn't quite understand it. I know motherboard memory is noticeably slower than processor card memory, but I wanted to fill those sockets before starting with the CyberStorm. And because the CyberStorm takes 32-MB SIMM's, it would be somewhat of a waste to use a 16-MB SIMM.

There were a few other odd events and ideas I should mention. First, unfortunately, I was left thinking "so much for the Magic Pack." At least Software Hut told me at the time of purchase that it was no longer included, due to a lack of license purchases by QuikPak. The software was installed, but no installation disks, manuals, or registration cards were included. This meant I could use some, but not all, of the software (as I was lacking the license numbers needed to operate some of it), and that I can never install any of it. This is extremely unprofessional. All online descriptions that I read still say the Magic Pack is included, and had I not been bringing over a large preexisting collection of software, I would have been left dead in the water, and very angry. This type of policy cannot continue.

Also discussed over the phone was the concept of the A4000T's IDE interface. Essentially what they told me was that it is vestigial, and non-functional, in the A4000T. This seemed very strange to me, and although I have not been able to confirm or refute this, all indications (from the A4000T manual and such) would seem to insist that the IDE interface does, in fact, work. I have an old PC IDE hard disk around here somewhere, and sometime, I'll give it a try. Finally, remember how the A4000 could take 80-ns or 60-ns memory, and how a special program was needed in order to enable 60-ns access? I asked Software Hut about this, and whether it was true of the A4000T, or if it automatically used 60-ns memory at top speed. They told me it did. Well, one day I tried System Prefs, and it told me otherwise. I set it to enable 60-ns access, and lo and behold, benchmark software did reflect a performance increase on the order of that which one might expect from 60-ns versus 80-ns memory access.

Correcting Those Initial Errors

As I mentioned, the DD floppy drive and four replacement SIMM's arrived the following day. Unfortunately, the situation quickly became unpleasant. For whatever reason, the CyberStorm is designed in such a way as to partially obscure the SIMM sockets under the framework supporting the A4000T's drive bays. It is conceivable that phase 5 had no choice but to obscure the sockets on some systems, given probable internal differences among the A3000(T) and A4000(T), but I can't attest to this, not having seen the internals of any of those other than the A4000T. Whatever the cause, it was inconvenient, and required that the Amiga be disassembled further in order to remove the SIMM.

One might expect the subsequent installation of four SIMM's into the motherboard sockets to go more smoothly. It did, up to a point, but when I booted the Amiga, the OS recognized 12 MB, not 16 MB, of fast RAM. Thinking it was a bad SIMM, we removed them one at a time to check, and found what seemed to be the one. But for no particular reason, we inserted it into another socket (effectively rearranging the modules), and when the Amiga next booted, all 16 megabytes were available. The theory I have heard to account for this phenomenon is that there may be minute timing differences among the SIMM's which could cause recognition problems depending on their order. I wasn't pleased with the situation, but since I had it working, I didn't want to fool with the motherboard memory any further.

The next can of worms proved to be the next item we installed, which was the double-density floppy drive. Mounting it in a bay was easy enough, but I couldn't see any way to plug it in. The power supply had a number of larger connectors, but only one smaller one, which was already in use plugged into the high-density floppy drive. A friend was able to quickly produce a makeshift adapter, and the next thing I knew, the drive had power. But that was all it had. It failed to recognize disks at all. There is one jumper within the Amiga specifying the density of the second floppy drive, along with several on the drives themselves that, without appropriate documentation, we had no idea how to set. In the end, through blind experimentation, we got it working. I'm not sure how people are normally supposed to power a second floppy drive, and how someone purchasing an AmTrade drive independently would configure it. There should have been some kind of documentation, and an appropriate adapter. Before I go on, I should mention my other floppy-drive-related gripe: the A4000T has no external floppy port! I really had no idea until I got it, and I am still left wondering why they would leave it out of the design. I had a number of external floppy drives I've collected over the years, and had intended to use a few with the A4000T. Yes, even in this era of hard disks, it can be useful to have multiple floppy drives, especially on an Amiga. And had I been able to do so, I might not have bothered reinstalling the accidentally omitted double-density internal drive. Anyway, this is a bad direction in which to move; future Amigas should regain the external floppy port.

The Biggest Problem, By Far

If this sounds bad so far, allow me to quote the popular operative phrase: "You ain't seen nothin' yet." Nothing, that is, until later that evening. Partly removing the drive bay frame apparently touched off a small catastrophe, and revealed a very nasty problem I would not like to see repeated. I tried starting the Amiga that night, and nothing...and I mean NOTHING happened. No traditional pre-boot colors, no boot menu (couldn't get that far), nothing. This seemed like a very bad thing. Somehow, after staring and poking at the internals for a while, I happened to find a good cable to jostle, and lo and behold, the system entered a repeating loop of boot color flashes. At least this was different, if it wasn't progress. The cable in question was the internal SCSI ribbon cable, although it in particular wasn't the source of the problem as much as what it was contacting. We removed the cable, and at next start, saw the familiar (to an A500 user, anyway) "please give me a disk" pre-boot animation. Hallelujah! Well, almost. When we reconnected the cable to the hard disk, the Amiga finally booted.

We weren't out of the woods yet, because the problem repeated itself the next day after we transported the entire system to its new destination. It was then solved in more or less the same manner as the night before. I was very concerned about this, and so I called Software Hut to ask, thinking I would have to send it back to them for repair. As it turns out, this is a known problem, and has something to do with the processor card and the frame sitting above it. They told me I could safeguard against it by placing a piece of anti-static material between the CyberStorm and the frame. I haven't done that yet, but in all the time since then, including another move, the problem, thankfully, has not recurred.

In the midst of the first troubleshooting session, we observed another problem: if even moderate force is used to turn on the machine, sometimes the switch will stick and not turn off without being manipulated from within. I have used a power strip, left the Amiga on as a server most of the time, and developed a gentler touch, all of which have effectively eliminated the problem. But the switch should not do that. I know they may not be as aesthetically pleasing as stylized round button switches, but rocker switches generally work very well, without the potential for problems like this. Plus, you know when you've turned one of them on or off.

In Summary...

These are the significant problems and annoyances I experienced with the A4000T early on. It may sound discouraging, but I should note that most of my negative experiences were not shared with Steve Duff and his new A4000T. He had his own negative experiences, actually. What this indicates is that such problems are at least not widespread.

But I have a lot more to say about this tower of power, and I think you'll find that most of it is very positive. In general, what I have outlined in this section can be attributed to the specific hardware design and workmanship of the A4000T, not Amigas in general (especially considering that there is a new company, QuikPak, in the mix this time through), and to the selling process. But once I had the bugs ironed out, I was reminded of why I bought this machine in the first place.

Why? Well, because it's an Amiga, and as you'll soon see, that says enough.